I stopped by the dock and fell in conversation with some French laborers. I asked them in my halting French if they had received any warning of the bombardment, because so much destruction had worried me, that many of them must have died. They said that there had been no warning. I asked what they did; did they get out in to tho country? They said, no; it had been too dangerous to go outside; they had got under the staircase. And they laughed as they said that, so I was relieved. I asked how many casualties they had had, and they said, ten killed and twenty wounded. I was amazed to hear the numbers were so low, having seen the destruction of the front, but they explained to me that most of them slept well back in this long town, and that the front was all business premises, railway station, and so forth, and much of it occupied by the Germans. They were enthusiastic, and I think very genuinely pleased that we had come.
I went on back towards the beach and my slit trench, carrying two bottles of mineral water and my German blanket, and got back to the Beachmaster's party at about eight o'clock. It was a fine evening and the ships were beginning to beach upon the sand; unloading was still proceeding at top speed from LCTs and LCIs still coming in from England. I dug out my slit trench a bit, and sat down for a supper of my twenty four hour ration, and mineral water. And presently it seemed to me that another blanket would not be amiss, and so I set out to walk west along the beach.
German prisoners were coming down to the beach in a long file, and embarking in an LCT under a heavy guard. They looked no different to any pictures of German prisoners that I had seen in illustrated papers. They were not defiant, they looked rather a poor lot, but I fancy that all prisoners look like that, because they are prisoners. Some of them looked very young indeed and the men by me were all commenting on it; we thought that some of them could hardly have been more than fourteen years old.
I went on, and came to casualties embarking in an LST upon the beach. Ambulances were bringing down a few of them, but most of them came down in DUKWs, as I have mentioned earlier. The LST was high and dry upon the beach so there was no need for the DUKWs to swim out to the ship; both ambulances and DUKWs drove through the sandhills, down the beach, and up in to the ward, which was the tank deck. I went on.
I came to a sad place, where a jeep had towed a six pounder anti-tank gun up to high water mark. A shell from one of the shore batteries had hit the gun and shattered it in to several pieces, and machine guns had riddled the jeep through, so that it would never run again. The men who manned it had long left, or else had been removed, but their equipment was there and scattered over the loose sand in utter confusion. I took a clean new blanket for my bed, and walked back rather sadly to my trench and made my bed. War is a harsh business.
I did not sleep so well in my slit trench, nor did anybody else around me. There was an air raid roughly once an hour, and there was a Bofors or a multiple Oerlikon every hundred yards along the beach, so that the raids were pretty to watch from my slit trench with streams of bright red tracer flying up in to a deep blue sky, but noisy. Each time that happened I reached out for my tin hat and pulled it sleepily over my head and tried to go to sleep again, but sleep did not come easily to anyone that night, and we were up early.
Beaching the ships to unload had one great advantage for the beach parties; that the amenities of civilisation were at hand. I walked on board an LST and asked if I might shave, and ended up by sitting down to a good American breakfast, and I was not the only one by any means. I do not speak for myself but for the Beachmasters when I say that this was a real help. In those first days the Beachmasters had a terrible job. Unloading went on literally twenty four hours a day, and they directed and controlled it all, with quite inadequate staff. By the time I left they were getting worn out, but the job was going magnificently. The ability to walk on board a ship and have a wash in fresh hot water, and a hot meal, was a real factor in enabling them to carry on.
I walked in to Courseulles after breakfast to inspect the town; I had only seen the front the previous day. As I walked up the one main street old men stopped me every hundred yards to shake me by the hand and tell me how glad they were that we had come. They were gathered talking in little knots at the corners; no work was going on, and all the shops were closed. They were concerned to know if we had taken a great port yet, such as Havre or Cherbourg. They knew very well that we would have difficulty in landing the heaviest equipment on the beach, and they did not feel safe that we would not have to evacuate again, and that the Germans would come back. It was necessary to be cautious in what one said, because the Germans had certainly left agents in the town, but I assured them that we should never evacuate again. One asked me if I had ever heard of Courseulles before, and laughed when I confessed that I had not. Another said that it was a pity we had to come to the smallest port in France. I said it wouldn't be the smallest port in France when we had done with it, and that reassured the men that I was speaking to.
One man told me that several of our soldiers had been killed during the night by anti-personnel bombs dropped near the railway station; I learned later that this was true, for they were simply bivouacking on the platform and had dug no slit trenches. Men have to learn. I asked if this bombing had killed any of the French civilians, and was told, no - only one woman had had her face cut by flying glass.
The town itself was in a condition of light blitz. That is to say, there were a few houses demolished, and much window glass had been removed, but the water was still running in the mains and the electricity still worked.
I went in to the Church. A shell had burst upon the roof at the west end so that one corner of the nave was open to the sky, but within the church everything was quiet and tidy and peaceful, ready for a service. I left the church and walked on up the street. The one street was thronged with army traffic heading northwards from the beaches; the street narrow, with sharp corners, and the congestion was bad. DUKWs in particular were having difficulty because of their great length, and at one corner they had to reverse to get round, causing much delay to the traffic stream. The military police were on the job, and controlling the traffic very efficiently, making the best of a difficult job.
In this traffic stream there were vehicles that had crossed with me in LST 517, so she had unloaded in the end. One Canadian officer that I had met upon the ship asked me the situation inland; I got upon the step of his half track truck and rode with him a little way while I showed him on his map the situation as I knew it. Then I wished then luck, and got off, and walked back to find a place where I could sit and write.
I settled in an estaminet, and sat there writing and talking to whoever came in for two or three hours. They had quite good light wine, both white and red, and they had cognac, but no other drinks - no beer, and none of the drinks such as Pernod that they would have sold in quantities ln former days. The men and women who passed through the estaminet that morning did not look under fed; they looked well and healthy, just as French country people always had looked. They showed me their monthly butter ration and their daily bread ration, and both seemed very small. But Courseulles is an agricultural town in a farm district; I do not suppose that rations meant much in their lives.
I was surprised at the number of young men in evidence, men of about thirty or thirty five years of age. At the time it seemed to me that there were many more than I should have seen in my own town in southern England, which is of a similar size and character. But I have since reflected that there was no work going on in Courseulles that day, either in town or country, and that all the farm hands probably had come in to town to be with their relatives and hear the news and see the soldiers and the ships upon the beaches, and that all workshops and factories in the district would be shut. I now think that there was no great difference in respect of man power between northern France and southern England, judged by this very small experience. The boy who served me in the estaminet showed me his calling up papers to go and work in Germany; we came just in time for him.
I finished my writing, and took it down to the Beach Headquarters in the early afternoon for despatch to the Admiralty via Hilary.
My time upon the beach was drawing to a close; I had seen most of what I had come to see, and I was growing very tired. I prowled around all afternoon gleaning such information as remained; I talked to a young officer with three mine clearing tanks, as tired as I was, and more dirty. Two of his three tanks were out of action for repair, for though they detonate the mines they suffer frequent damage in the process, and require a constant follow up party of the repair squads of REME And repairing or replacing parts on tanks in the field, with no workshops and the minimum of gear, is a job for men. The tank weighs thirty tons or so, to start with, and this has to be jacked up, often on soft and marshy ground. The damaged part to be replaced may then be a casting or a forging weighing half a ton. Men sweat and struggle to do delicate fitting work in mud and dusts on parts they cannot lift, that break their fingers if they fall, infinitely dirty, infinitely weary. While I was talking to this tired young officer his third and last tank, working in a field nearby, went out of action with a damaged bogie.
The beach was thronged that afternoon with beached ships of all sizes up to about four thousand tons, a most extraordinary sight. At one time there must have been thirty such ships high and dry upon a mile of beach. I took a lot of photographs, and worked my way back to my gear in the slit trench. Right opposite me, high and dry upon the beach, was LST 535, another of those hospitable American ships. I went on board her at about 1900 and asked her young captain, Lt. Olsen U.S.N.R., for a passage home.
While we were waiting to get off the beach, four of his officers came to the Captain to ask if they might go ashore for souvenirs. He agreed, with strict limitations on their length of stay. I warned them to be very careful of the land mines, and told them where to go to find the German dugouts. They came back with some little bits of stuff, not very effective, for my warning about mines had scared them, so that they had not ventured so far as they might have done. But I was glad I warned them, for they brought back with them a sad story of two American sailors from one of the LSTs who had been souvenir hunting that afternoon in the vicinity, and had both been killed by mines. There were little explosions of one sort or another going on all the time that I was on the beach, so that after the first hour one took little notice of them.
That night the tide came up. The captain filled his ballast tanks and held the vessel down upon the sand till he had more than his light draught of water, then pumped his tanks out and came up and floated, and slid off, and out to sea. But I knew nothing about that. I was asleep.
Copyright by the Trustees of the Estate of the late Nevil Shute Norway.
By Jim Schermerhorn
Beachmaster-Officer superintending disembarkation of troops
Davit-Crane on board ship used for hoisting anchor, torpedo, etc. inboard or outboard; one of pair of cranes for suspending or lowering ship's boat.
DUKW-An amphibious tracked vehicle about the size of a small truck, designed to "swim" ashore and go inland from the beach. An armoured personnel carrier. (In US parlance - a "duck.")
Ebb tide-The outgoing or falling tide. (See also: neap tide.)
E-boats-Literally, enemy boats. They were very similar to US torpedo boats or British fairmiles. Very fast, armed with light guns and torpedoes.
Estamint-French cafe selling wine, beer and coffee; or cottage with bar-room.
Horsa gliders-Main British troop glider of WWII. Interestingly enough, made by Airspeed Ltd. NSN's former company.
LCI-Landing Craft, Infantry. Small boat for carrying men in to beach and unloading them via ramp.
LCT-Landing Craft, Tank. Much smaller vessel than an LST, designed to carry vehicles, men or stores. Also designed to run in to beach to unload via use of a contained ramp.
LCVP.-Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel. Smaller vessel designed to carry a mixture of vehicles (small) and men ashore. Also runs in to beach and drops ramp. As with other Landing Craft, usually carried aboard a Landing Ship.
LST-Landing Ship, Tank. A large ocean going vessel, designed to run in to the beach and unload tanks, other vehicles, men or whatever.
Mae West-Inflatable life vest, so named for Mae West (1892-1980), a shapely U.S. actress
Neap tide-Designating the tides occurring just after the first and third quarters of the lunar month: at these times the high tides are lower, while the low tides are higher, than the corresponding tides during the spring tide because of the interaction of the gravitational forces of the moon and sun. (See also: ebb tide.)
Priest-British armored and tracked vehicle - like a tank, but used for some specialized purposes - perhaps minefield clearing. Nicknamed the "Priest" by the British due to its resembling a pulpit.
RAMC-Royal Army Medical Corps.
REME- Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Corps.
Wind Force-Measure of strength of wind, Force "0" would be flat calm, while a Force "12" is a full fledged hurricane. Between "0" and "12" rates are proportional so that a Force "7" would be a near gale.